Unsurprisingly, a war on Ukrainian soil has impacted the country’s ability to produce grain. Usually responsible for six per cent of all calories traded on the global market, a hit to Ukraine’s yields has the potential to produce some serious grain shortages worldwide. Labour shortages caused by the war make producing crops challenging, as there are fewer workers available for planting and harvesting. Not only that, but for many farmers, the growing season has been compressed. Military operations and fertiliser shortages, combined with this difficulty finding labour, means planting and harvests can be delayed, forcing them to turn to lower-yielding types of grain. With challenges and risk factors like these, Ukrainian farmers may become despondent and avoid the financial and material input of grain production. A future where Ukraine has a lower capacity for grain production would undoubtedly worsen and extend the trend of rising global food prices, even if the war were to end.
It's not just Ukraine’s ability to produce grain that is driving up prices, but also its ability to export it. 95 per cent of Ukrainian grain exports are sent through Odessa, Mariupol, and Kherson – all areas which have suffered significant attacks. We know Russian strategy extends to attacks on key infrastructure, as we have seen with the destruction of Ukrainian electricity grids in the east of the country. It is therefore not unlikely that port and grain handling facilities could be a Russian target, and if they were to be put out of action, Ukraine’s ability to export produce would take a blow, reducing the global supply of grain and creating a fear of availability: driving up prices.
But is an uncertain supply of grain from Ukraine the sole reason the cost of food has increased? In short, no. The effects of the war in conjunction with bad weather have led to food shortages worldwide. Drought and too much rain in other key producing countries has intensified food shortages caused by the war. Global shortages have not been evenly distributed. Pakistan and India suffered due to the effects of the droughts and Europe suffered crop failures due to an unusually dry year. The Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa regions, however, took the brunt of the impact of the war on their food supplies. The combination of the effects of the war and the effects of bad weather on global supply, then, resulted in a more severe global shortage than just one factor in isolation.
Food shortages also seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, too. Stockpiling of food is a practice seen all over the world. Notably, China is hoarding food on a vast scale in an effort to cancel out the shortages it anticipates, reduce a reliance on imports, and maintain calm. China now possesses more than 60 per cent of global maize reserves, 60 per cent of global rice reserves, and 51 per cent of global wheat reserves – this is around 20 per cent more than its average needs in the last decade. Beyond hoarding vast amounts of global supply, the effect China’s actions have on its neighbours also feeds into shortages: it prompts similar behaviour, as other countries assume China expects the war to go on for longer. All of this, then, leads to higher food prices.
On it’s own, the war in Ukraine has caused some food prices to rise. However, only when paired with other factors like bad weather and environmental changes resulting in poor harvests, and speculation and panic resulting in stockpiling does the war have a truly significant effect on food security. The complexity and connectivity of global food supply chains is becoming more apparent. It raises issues for governments, companies, producers, and consumers and it is clear that something needs to be done to tackle the issues causing instability and conflict.
But what is to be done? How can the international community deliver that change? Will countries striving for more self-sufficiency hamper the development of integrated global food systems? And would new controls and regulations just create a bigger problem somewhere else? One thing is for sure: one year into the invasion of Ukraine, food security researchers of the global, interconnected economy still have a lot of unpicking to do.
This feature is adapted from an article published in War in Ukraine: One Year On - a collection of articles to mark the first year of the war.